Derek Hatfield - A Fighting Spirit

Derek Hatfield © François Van Malleghem / Vendée Globe

Canadian Derek Hatfield, 56, sets out to take on the Vendée Globe, a race which in 1996 sadly took the life of his compatriot Gerry Roufs. His first personal encounter with this race was seeing that fleet 12 years ago, an experience which clearly sowed the seed that the challenge was one to be taken on.

Hatfield’s career was in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police before working in compliance in the securities industry, but his ocean racing career goes back nearly 15 years. He took nearly five years to fund and build his Open 40 entry to the 2002 Around Alone. Despite being pitch poled in a terrifying storm off Cape Horn and breaking his mast, which he took four weeks to repair, Hatfield went on to finish after eight months racing.

His endeavour and fortitude raised his profile in Canada and on the back of that he decided to try to raise enough to compete in this race. His attempts to find a large corporate backer proved fruitless, but his ingenuity, charisma and strength of character have inspired nearly 6000 individuals, families, companies, to sign up to help and their names are on the side of the Owen Clarke design which is a development of Mike Golding’s Ecover 2.

Hatfield’s maiden race with the boat proved something of a baptism by fire into the class, the long slog back to the European winter that is the Transat BtoB. Despite being reduced to a small sail plan due to damage to many of his sails, he finished.

Whilst the European waters this summer have seen the well funded teams working up their boats, tuning, testing and putting in the miles, Hatfield has been keeping his sponsors happy, hundreds of them…..

'We had to do some corporate sailing and entertaining home in Canada.' He recalls, ' We have a lot of individual sponsors and so that meant over 500 people to go sailing in the summer. You can put through 30 people a day on the boat. Three trips a day is hard work and it is really a big time commitment. And so that tied the boat up for at least 25 or 30 days.'

Having honoured that commitment, he was one of the first to arrive in Les Sables d’Olonne to prepare.

'We left Halifax mid-September. We wanted to come here early. We were close to the first group. I wanted to get some of the expertise which is available locally. Like, the rigging. And that is all done. We passed the safety inspections and have a few small things to. Now we are getting down to the small details.'

'We have now done four Transatlantics including the BtoB. We did that race to qualify the boat early, and we managed to get that finished. I struggled a bit in that race because the boat was not quite ready, but now it is full sorted. It is all about getting miles on the boat, and now we have 20,000 miles on the boat, and we have made some small modifications. We made a sleeping chair on deck. And we discovered that the boat is very wet, the water was getting sucked into the cabin, and we get water in the nav station.'

'We did some mods inside and have some new sails – main, Solent, new gennaker. We bought them from UK Halsey and we did not really have the budget to go big time on sails. I am pretty comfortable now. We are installing a new autopilot, a third one, so that everything else goes down it will still get me round. And so I am looking forward to getting ‘control’ of the boat again. Then we start loading the gear, and the watermaker, checking the details.'

Hatfield has had the Vendée Globe in his sights for many years, but, he says:
' I never commit to anything beyond the next project because we just don’t have the budget. So, I commit one at a time. And after the exposure I had with the media in Canada, we really had to see what we had to do against the best in the world.

'This Vendée Globe is not covered so much as a sailing race, but as a human endeavour.

'Sailing is not a huge spectator sport in Canada, there are many people who sail, but it is not a mainstream public type of interest. Not like here, where you have so many people who really feel the passion for it. That made it so hard to land a big sponsor in Canada and it is that old Catch 22 situation. You need the coverage to get the sponsor and you need the sponsor to get the media coverage. So all you can do is promote what you are doing, get as much media as you can, and start to build it up, similar to what they have done in England, when you see what Ellen did in the UK, for the UK fleet in 2000 and there are seven boats here, some goodly funded teams here. It is a learning curve, and I don’t have any visions of doing another one.'

'I came here in 1996 and watched Gerry Roufs leave and Isabelle leave, that big disaster year, and thought to myself ‘that is really something’ and I was thinking about an Open 50 at the time but got to grips with the budget, or the lack of budget at the time, and decided to build an Open 40 to do the Around Alone. So I built first the 40 with that in mind and did the 2002 Around Alone after taking five years to build that boat. In 1996 I had gone straight back from the start and decided to build an Open 40 and launched straight into building it, did the 2002 Around Alone, and so the process really started away back then.'

'The build of this started late in 2005 and launched in September of 2006.
We did move on from there a little bit. I realise the boats are into a different corner of the rule, the boats are a lot more powerful, and we are on the light side of the rule, because that was Ecover and Owen Clarke’s philosophy back then in 2005-2006. I am happy with the boat, and if you were starting off today, you might reconsider.'

'The real issue for me has been the budget to prepare the boat. I think we don’t have the same sail development, we don’t have the budget to build many sails, and time against the other boats has been very limited, because we have been so busy fund raising. I have only lined up with them once in the BtoB. And I ran into trouble straight away, with autopilot problems and some sail damage but I struggled through that race. It was a tough one to start off with. But I feel much more confident now.'

He has objective aspirations, given his budget, experience in the class:
'Well I really want to finish. If I could get into the top half of the fleet I’d be happy. My race number is 15 and if I could make 15 or better I’d be happy.'

And the method of funding has proven a relatively reliable formula, if time consuming and gruelling:

'I do a lot of speaking engagements, I talk at a business group and then at a yacht club, and people are invited to help and there are now nearly 6000 names on the side of the hull. That has raised nearly two million dollars.'

The icing on the cake here has been signing on Algimouss as a main sponsor, a company with a proud history in the Vendée Globe.

'We discussed possible sponsorship with Algimouss for about two months. They sponsored Raphael Dinelli and Jean-Luc Van den Heede before. They were talking to other skippers so I am just delighted they chose me.'